The time was 10:28pm when the shrill ring of my phone brought me back to reality. I was just getting ready for bed when a name flashed across my screen: Raliya XYZ*. Why was she calling me so late? I thought to myself. I picked up the phone reluctantly with a lazy ‘Hello’.
She was crying. Her husband had beaten her up again. This time, however, he had thrown her out of the house with her two daughters aged five and three. She did not even have a chance to take her purse. Her sobs made it hard to comprehend what she was saying so I just gave her instructions. Get a taxi, come to my house, we will sort it out in the morning. I don’t have money she cried. Don’t worry, I replied, just take a ‘drop’.
My mood was immediately deflated. The few clouds of slumber that were beginning to settle in my brain had since dispersed. My mind kept recalling the other episodes of violence. Raliya was a distant relative of mine who had been married for six years. She married early, immediately after secondary school at the age of seventeen. I was the only person she could call family in Kano. Her parents and other family members lived in the North-Eastern part of the country in abject poverty. Shortly after the wedding, my trained eyes began to notice the subtle signs and symptoms. The downcast eyes, the hollow laughter and the heightened agitation. I remember noticing her jump in fright when one of my kids knocked on the bedroom door. The once cheerful girl I knew, had started becoming withdrawn. Her visits to my house every month or so were becoming less frequent. She never removed her hijab whenever she came visiting. When I offered to help her open a bank account so that she could have some financial independence, her husband refused. Her weight loss was evident and when I commented she said it was due to ‘ulcer’.
Raliya arrived a few minutes to 11pm and I went outside to meet her. She wore only a night shirt underneath her hijab. On her feet were bathroom slippers. Her frightened daughters, wearing matching pyjamas had no shoes on. I led them to the guest room and food was offered. She declined and I did not press. Nothing would be achieved this night. Well, except one thing. As she made to enter the bathroom, I insisted she removed her hijab. She resisted at first, but I was firm. Realising that she could not hide her secret for long anymore, she reluctantly shed off her outer shield. Raliya was light skinned and so the bruises were easily evident. The left side of her body was red and swollen. She could not lift her wrist where he had struck her. I silently took pictures, after which I gave her Ibuprofen.
In the morning, her story came out in bits and pieces. Raliya and her husband had been having the same argument for weeks. She wanted to further her education and had even gone ahead to secure admission in a college of education. He agreed at first, then later changed his mind saying he could not afford it. When she insisted and said she would pay for herself, he accused her of prostitution. That she only wanted to go to school to meet men. Raliya ignored his accusations and enrolled in school with her family’s support. On the night she came, he had returned home angry, spoiling for a fight. He faulted her cooking saying it was salty after which he asked her to bring him water to wash his hands. When she asked her 5-year-old daughter to get it instead, he flew into a rage, saying that she was feeling too ‘big’ to get it herself since she started going to school. For the first time, Raliya retaliated when he began to hit her. She sunk her teeth into his shoulder ferociously. He immediately released her and threatened to throw her out instead. She dared him and in the scuffle that ensued, he pushed her out the door along with her children who had observed the whole incidence.
Every few months or so, the media shines its spotlight on Domestic Violence (DV). This is, especially so when a famous person or celebrity is involved. However, for all our talk on DV, very few states in Nigeria have put in place a system to protect and help DV victims. In the US, about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men in the U.S. experience domestic violence, and 1,500 of them die each year. These numbers may be higher; domestic violence remains an underreported issue, and many victims do not seek help. In Nigeria, the statistics are understandably poor, as people hardly report the issue.
In medical practice, we are taught to screen for DV whenever we have a strong suspicion in a patient. Tell-tale signs like repeated bruises and cuts, malnutrition and the presence of an over bearing spouse in all clinical consultations are usually pointers to a more serious problem. There are various screening tools that are used to help us determine if a person is being abused, the type of abuse and how safe the person is. However, due to the fact that not much is being done for the victims; many healthcare workers usually shy away from using these resources. Because, of what use is knowledge if we can’t use it to help people?
I tried to reason with Raliya on the way forward. I did not want her to be caught in the vicious cycle of abuse. She had been married for six years and since then the abuse had escalated gradually from emotional to verbal to financial and now physical. The physical violence had graduated to beating to throwing her out with just the clothes on her back onto the street at night. I wanted her to see the pattern and to draw the conclusion herself. There is little one can do if the victim is not willing to face the truth.
She said she needed time to think and pleaded for transport fare to travel to her parents. The following day after she left, the husband came to my house asking for her. He begged for forgiveness. He said she provoked him. I looked at his pathetic face and kept mute. The decision was not mine to make.
A few weeks later, I heard from Raliya again. The husband had visited and asked her to return. She was considering it after pressure from her parents. Chants of ‘Kiyi hakuri’ being flung carefully into the conversations. I sent her a folder that I compiled and usually give to women, I suspect of being victims of Intimate Partner Violence. The first three pages contains photos of women who have been killed by their spouses while the last five pages tells stories of women who have courageously left their abusive marriages and gone on to live fruitful lives. The stories are diverse and are made up Nigerian women to whom we can all relate: Hausa, Yoruba Igbo, rich, poor, etc.
Days later, Raliya’s mother called me enraged. That I had influenced her daughter negatively. Raliya was refusing to return to her husband. She claimed that while I was in my matrimonial home, I was encouraging Raliya to leave hers. I just smiled and kept quiet while she ranted.
What have I not heard? Do they think that I have reached to where I am without developing crocodile skin? Wetin Musa never see for gate?
Finally, I asked her politely: ‘Hajia, would you rather Raliya’s dead body be returned to you? Or would you rather I had not asked her to come to my house that night? To be homeless and left at the mercy of kidnappers, robbers and rapists?’
She hung up the phone. I continued eating my frozen yoghurt, joyfully.
Another woman saved.